Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Kavanaugh, Climate Grief, and Babies

There have been a spate of news articles of late that comment on the fact that millennials are choosing not to have children because of climate change.

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Self-regulating to control population growth for the sake of the planet is not a new concept.  One need only to Google "overpopulation" to learn all about how the planet's woes can be solved by what you do with your uterus. Please, let's not pretend that vaginas have nothing to do with environmental politics.

As a feminist who also cares about the environment, I, too, have struggled with the question about whether I should reproduce and become one of those dreaded "breeders." I've read, and even published on, the complicated dilemma of being an environmentalist and a mother. Having a child is the worst thing you can do to supersize your ecological footprint. Environmentalists rage over whether having kids is a deal-breaker, or whether those who advocate for reproductive justice (often women, and often women of color), and those who advocate for the environment (often white people, and often men) need to play better together. This post is not about whether having kids is good for the environment, and I'm definitely not interested in telling anybody what to do with their uterus.

I won't rehash these debates here, but they serve to show how the new discussion about abstaining from reproducing is so different. The new argument is not about whether you'll add another person to an already burdened ecosystem.  It's easy to see why that goal might seem lofty and only appealing to elites. No, now it's about whether you can handle the grief of bringing people into the world who will experience it dying. That's a whole different existential question, if you ask me.

I'm of a generation that had children in the transition between these two rationales. By the time I had my second child, in 2014, I had stuck my feminist finger up at the populationist Malthusian fascists, but was fully immersed in a bad case of eco-grief.

Why did I have a second child? Total emotional and cognitive dissonance is my answer. But I can assure you that not a day goes by when I don't agonize about the world my children will grow up in, and I'm not just talking about politics. I mean the extinctions, the loss of beauty, the spread of toxins, cancer, and pathogens, and the geopolitical insecurity (and fear and nationalism it spawns) that climate change is already putting into motion. Forget polar bears, I cry regularly for the world their generation will inherit.

As couples of all sexualities and gender identities enter that time of life when they're trying to figure out whether they want to do that old-fashioned thing of "settling down and having kids", many of them are saying "hell no" in order avoid the guilt and grief of voluntarily foisting the next hideous 50 years of Anthropocene hell on their offspring.

But, I dare say, their abstention isn't just about the environment or love of their children. It's also a middle finger to the heteronormative, nuclear family fantasy. For many hetero women, the stakes are are high. In general, these women still do the vast majority of domestic labor, which goes up exponentially when you add kids. In general, these women are still paid 75 cents to a man's dollar, and even less for women of color. As a professor, I'm sure my students are watching me juggle home life and a career-- a great privilege, I concede!-- and thinking, "hell no. Not for me."

And frankly, I support them, especially my female-identified students. I'm sure that I shock them when I brazenly provoke them to imagine not having children, or at least doing so with eyes wide open about the costs. As someone who may appear to be a model for "having it all," and as someone who is fairly high-functioning, I may be hard to believe when I say I find my "life-balance" borderline impossible, and share the real stories of how my mental, physical, and marital health have taken some bad hits. Why would I wish this on anybody? I want to send alerts to future me-types from this side of the line, saying "don't come this way, too many booby traps!"

I'm not trying to be ungrateful. I just wish someone had sent me the memo when I was young that I could fulfill my maternal destiny by birthing many loves*-- books, intellectual work in the world, mentoring students, friendships, supporting my parents and other family members, the list goes on and on-- and not just actual babies.

Today, my partner asked me, "how will we tell our girls that they don't need to have kids?"

I've been rehearsing that answer in candid conversations with my students for years.  Here's what I said to my partner, without even thinking about it.

Let's tell them at an early age that their self-worth is not dependent upon others' views of them.

Let's tell them that their futures can include any number of fates that don't entail parenting (I never start any sentence with "when you grow up and have your own kids, you'll...").

Let's tell them that their power in the world is not derived from who they're related to ("someone's mother, daughter, sister") but from her own solo self.

Let's tell them that pleasing other people --be they potential partners, children, or their own parents--is not the only thing that will define their social value.

Sure, you can tell your daughters about the coral reefs and the rising sea levels, and fear-monger about climate refugees and the coming anarchy. Heck, try giving them a copy of The Population Bomb! for their 13th birthday.  But personally, as a feminist, I like to think that their empowerment as women is tied to the liberation of others, including other species, and that it doesn't require the suppression of their or anybody else's reproductive rights.

I may have made a different choice by marrying a cis-man and having kids, and it may seem I'm being hypocritical by saying these things. I know I'm walking on eggshells here, because I don't want to speak for all women, nor all hetero/nuclear family moms. And I know that my issues reflect my relative socioeconomic and racial privilege. I know these are not every woman's issues, for sure. I am also extremely grateful for my life and have no regrets. And obviously, as if it needs to be said, I love my kids. I wouldn't want to impose my choice to have kids on anyone else, just as I can understand why some people would disagree with me that having kids is still really oppressive for many American women. It's both/and. Having kids can be awesome, and also can be a personal journey through patriarchy. Furthermore, people who have kids sometimes care more about the future of the environment than they did before (this was certainly the case for me, but then of course having kids increased my footprint by ridiculous levels), but that doesn't mean that people without kids are likely to care less, and all of this is totally shaped by cultural upbringing, class, etc. etc. I concede all these eggshells I know I'm walking on. My arguments here admittedly are shaped by my perspective of being a white, hetero, cis, PhD-wielding, American woman.

All that said, when I was young, I did not get the message that I could be a whole and loved person, without children. It's taken having kids and navigating the brutal demands of work and domestic life in a heteronormative context for me to realize that "having it all" (kids+ career) isn't the only way for women to fulfill their purposes in the world. Only as I mature into mid-life do I realize that I have value as a human being outside of my ability to reproduce, parent, support a partner, and fulfill this dream of normalcy.

To me, the news that young people are thinking about not having kids is both tragic and fabulous. I am happy for them that they'll never go through watching their kids realize how bad things are, that they'll never feel that guilt and heartbreak. I also imagine all these women liberated to pursue their myriad loves-- first and foremost, themselves. I see all this patriarchy loosen its grip, because having children still so seriously constrains women's voices, choices, and ability to chart their own course.
But of course, I see the tragedy too: I wouldn't want my reproductive choices to be influenced by how much carbon will be in the air by the time my kids are adults. So I am sad for them, even as I'm giddy about what it will mean for rearranging sexual power relations. What will happen to all these things when fewer women are involved in "traditional" marital relations, having fewer children, and start to see their sexual and political identities in all these new ways? Oh my!

Whenever I think about young women making decisions about having kids, I don't just think about the planet, or their kids' potential future eco-grief. I think about young women's self-worth being measured by other things, things of their own determination, things outside the conventional nuclear arrangement--an arrangement that is frankly neither pro-environment nor pro-woman. I think of my girls living different childhoods than I lived, where their sense of self-worth eclipses what men think of them, and where their choice to potentially not have children won't feel like the same loss for them as it would have for me.

Like many of you, I am despairing about what I'm watching these past few days about Brett Kavanaugh's bid for the Supreme Court. As an environmental studies professor, as a feminist, and as a mother, I can't separate my desire to see ecological doom averted from my desire to see the next generation of women redefine the contracts of partnerhood, domestic life, and sexual power.  Gender relations are undergoing tectonic shifts right now. My hope is that both the planet and women will gain much from all these changes.


_________________

*Yeah, I am referring to Rebecca Solnit again. Her book, The Mother of All Questions, is inspiring to me, but I can't wait for the book that tells me how to do what she's doing, and also have kids. I guess that's the point-- it's still really hard to do both.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Love Letter to the Resistance

Dear Resistance Movement,

I love you. The thought of you sometimes makes me choke up with pride. You are like a big down comforter. Just knowing you're there makes me feel warm. Before I met you, I thought I was alone. I didn't think the word "community" applied to anything in my life. Now, I feel like one small but important node in a vast spiderweb, an invisible force holding the world together, together. Thank you for manifesting yourself. You, the blessed unrest, my tribe, are the silver lining.

All loves also entail friction. I want you to be your best self. And, I can't be with you all the time.

45 isn't the hurricane you think he is; he's just the weathervane.  Melania's jacket is abhorrent, but it's not that she doesn't care. She's mad at him too.  In what universe is that jacket a feminist statement? Try to get your head there. Female anger emerges as a whack-a-mole.

Image result for melania anger
Don't get me wrong. I am not apologizing for that shit. But look at her. She's pissed.

If the evidence results in revealing that the emperor has no clothes, what then? Will we be satisfied? Will our triumphant moment of justice make everything OK?

No. America has been ripped open, and with the pump of each day's news, it bleeds life out. Focusing on those with political power is like wrangling with telltales. Holding the flimsy strands of fabric in the place you want them won't change the direction of the wind.

And we will tire of the battle. Arms aching, teeth gritted, we'll burn a fuse with all that anger directed at flaccid nothingness.

The real work is tending to the culture wars. Tribalism is everywhere, dividing, dividing, dividing. Disguised as solidarity, we build ourselves up by what we're against, leeching our life-force out, day by day.


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Before 2016, I thought that having more arguments, evidence, and facts in my back pocket was the way to move the dial of our culture in the directions I wanted. Likewise, as a teacher, I had thought my role was to fill students with knowledge to support positions and claims, arm them with reason and teach them how to win debates.

Has this worked in my most intimate relationships? No. Fifteen years into my marriage, I am finally learning that winning arguments and locating blame may feel temporarily good, but acts like herbicide in a garden. Only one thing can grow under the reign of repeated exposure--resentful victimhood.  Our own relationships reveal this truth to us.

Beware the us-them mindset; the other side entrenches further too. Utopia isn't around the corner of a few changed offices.  Silencing the other side by winning arguments and races can not remain the holy grail of your political energies. When my lover argues me into a speechless corner, my resentment finds other outlets. My heart and mind are not changed. Victimhood becomes fuel for other fights.

I would like the weathervanes and telltales to indicate a different wind, for sure. I love you, tribe, for figuring out multi-issue politics, intersectionality, and strategic coalition-building. I love you for all you do. I worry for your longevity, and I worry about what happens to the country when you win.

If you don't see me at the next march, it's not because I don't love you.  I'm wrestling the wind, not the weathervane.

Love,
Sarah








Friday, July 6, 2018

Teaching, Climate Change, and Eco-Grief: Recent Talks

I have been excited, nervous, and honored to give a few talks this past year on eco-grief, climate change, and teaching undergrads in the Anthropocene.  I thought I'd collect links to them in one place.



  • December 2017 University of Washington. Thanks to the Interdisciplinary Anthropocene Cluster for inviting me. The talk is available on You Tube, here.

  • February, 2018. "My Favorite Lecture" series, Plaza Grill, Arcata, CA.  Thanks so much to Mike Dronkers for the incredible editing and organizing work to make this sound so good. Available as podcast here.

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  • March 2018, Swarthmore College (my alma mater). Thanks to one of my idols, Giovanna Di Chiro, who I'm so grateful to for inviting me there. It was lovely to catch up with my religious studies professors from my time as an undergrad, Mark Wallace and Steve Hopkins. The audio and transcription are available here.

  • June, 2018, University of California Santa Barbara. Thanks to John Foran for inviting me to join the Environmental Justice/Climate Justice working group for inviting me.  




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A new book coming out Fall 2018, Affective Ecocriticism, edited by Jennifer Ladino and Kyle Bladow, features the only published article-length version of this work, but I'm currently developing these ideas into a book project. 


Sunday, July 1, 2018

My Meditation Class Got Hijacked by Politics

I have been attending a “mindfulness meditation” class on Mondays recently. Last Monday, the teacher brought up the horror weighing heavily on our minds, of the separation of families along the southern border. Our teacher raised the question, what does the practice of meditation have to do with injustice in the world? 

Although I feel like I've been thinking about this question forever, in my midlife, I find my thoughts about this are changing. I used to agree with the conclusions of my teacher--that the whole point of spirituality is to open us to non-harming loving kindness, which leads us to action in the world. She quoted Gandhi a few times, who said, in essence, "those who think spirituality has nothing to do with politics don't know shit about spirituality." 

I remember my Religious Studies major in college, for which I took classes like "Religious Belief and Moral Action," and "The Problem of Religion."  These classes were nearly entirely all about how different religions have theorized the relationship between political action and spirituality. I used to think that any spiritual life one could lead would be narcissistic if not connected to politics. Chalk this all up to my own Quaker background; the Quakers are nuts for using religion to rationalize progressive social justice agendas.

But over time, my thoughts have changed on this. For one, I've become much more cynical about using religion or "morals" or "spirituality" to justify any political agenda--on the political right and the political left.

But what I really want to write about here is something else that bugged me about meditation class last week. 

One of the reasons I stopped attending Quaker meeting is because I don't want my spiritual spaces coopted by political proselytizing. Which isn't to say that spirituality has nothing to do with politics. It just rubs me as fundamentally devious to sneak in political agendas while people are contemplating the meaning of life. It's manipulative. 
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Also, are Buddhism and Quakerism only available to liberals? That can't be right.

The small-mindedness of thinking that these spiritual approaches must inherently lead to a certain political bent is troubling to me. It can't be that if you're X religion, then your politics must therefore be Y. Doesn't this just add to the problem of tribalism we're all being crushed by right now?  Isn't this at the very core of what led to what's happening on the border?

In addition to not liking to have my spiritual life hijacked in favor of anybody else's politics, even if they're in line with my own, I bristled at being told, once again, that if I really believed in loving kindness, or God, or whatever, I would do more things. 

My teacher's lecture seemed to assume that everybody in the room was so privileged that they must not actually do political or social justice work in their lives. If they were in that room, then they must not be already engaged enough. This assumption just reinforced my own anti-meditation bias. I am sure I have avoided pursuing a spiritual life not just because I have no time, but because I have thought of it as privileged, as a luxury only people who are not paying enough attention to the apocalypse we're experiencing would care to seek. 

However, the whole reason I ended up in that mindfulness meditation class is because I am suffering from burnout of doing too many things, and I've come around to thinking that a spiritual life may in fact not just be necessary for recovering, but also for keeping myself resourced for a lifetime of this work.  

After the 2016 election, I turned up the volume of doing more things even more, thinking I wasn't already doing enough. I have turned to mindfulness and meditation precisely to recover, to find rest, to re-source myself so that I can figure out how to keep working for social justice without depleting myself. 

My teacher's conclusion that we should all support organizations more, call our congresspeople more, reach out to our neighbors more, is all fine and well, but what I want to hear about is the value of meditation to keeping up one's reserves for the long haul of this work. 

I agree with her that spirituality should not be an escape from politics. Meditation is not only a navel-gazing exercise. But I crave a much more sophisticated, complex lecture on how one's own spiritual vitality is necessary for sustained engagement in the world--no matter what that engagement looks like. It may be calling politicians, but it may be what we do every day for our jobs, then come home and do with our families. 

Adding more for us to do on top of our first and second shifts is precisely what is not needed. And fueling the divisions between "us and them"-- what Tara Brach in her most recent podcast calls "unreal othering"--is not what I want from my spiritual life or teachers. 

It's not that I want an escape from politics; I want an alternative path of action not driven by anger, fear, and negativity about people and actions I feel powerless to do anything about, and a practice of right action and right intention that helps me focus on the realms I do have control over.  

I'm feeling more like Audre Lorde than Gandhi right now.

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Friday, May 18, 2018

The Myth of the Selfish Woman

I've been thinking a lot lately about the paradoxical feelings of motherhood, like selfish vs. sacrificing, and love for others vs. loss of self.  We are all supposed to have stable, monolithic feelings about mothering, and if we dare veer from that one acceptable feeling-- unconditional, self-sacrificing love-- then the world seems to fall apart.

Forget adultery. In this age, it seems the worst thing a woman can do is be Selfish, branded with the scarlet letter S in a world that relies on women seeing their only value in terms of the love they give others. Indeed, the root of "martyr" is of course, mother.

So many women I know feel ashamed to share that they feel anything negative about mothering, as if those negative feelings would somehow counteract or negate the positive they also feel. They are to feel complete and fulfilled by manifesting their destiny as mothers, and when they express doubt or resistance to this notion of motherhood, they're damned.

Can't we feel opposing things equally and simultaneously? Doubt and certainty? Fear and adoration? Anguish and intimacy?  Can we not desire intimacy with our own selves as much as we desire intimacy with those around us?  Why is it so abhorrent to think of mothers as as much internal as they are external in their attentions?

The problem with this approach to mothers is that it actually hurts all women, not to mention the kids and the partners and everybody else around them.  This expectation that women should feel ultimate fulfillment and love by mothering is destructive for mothers and non-mothers alike.  It creates a situation where women who choose to mother are shocked to find they miss themselves and struggle for years to figure out how to find themselves again--all in isolation because of the shame they feel for daring to have any other feelings besides love. It makes women who do not mother-- for whatever reasons, intentional or not-- subject to suspicion.  Rebecca Solnit writes about this in her book, The Mother of All Questions (which of course is, "why did you choose not to have kids?"), for example.  It marks women who want but can't have, or who lost, children as walking embodiments of Tragedy.

The lack of open discussion about the complexity of women's feelings about themselves and about their desires or lack thereof to procreate, and stigmatizing all feelings non-loving around motherhood,  eats away at us.

I see so many of my mother friends suffer from this. Many of our partners add to the shame. And it's easy to see why. The notion that a mother would have complex feelings about motherhood is quite a threat. If mothering isn't totally fulfilling to my partner, will she leave us? Have an affair? Damage the children for life? I have yet to meet a mother who feels her partner can allow the space for negative feelings about mothering. That pressure, too, especially from one's most intimate partner and supporter, amplifies the sense of isolation and shame tenfold.

I feel both fully fulfilled in some profound existential way by the experience of having and raising kids. And I am also feel profoundly claustrophobic because of the inescapability of the daily demands on me, and anxious about the alternative paths I'd also like to be exploring.

It's truly a practice in surrender, and even if there is something appealing about this assault on my desiring ego in a kind of Buddhist way, I don't like it.  I feel both daily explosions of love for my kids and family life, and also daily pangs of resentment about the obligations they put on me. I feel both intense desire to spend more time with my kids and also an intense desire to do a million other things--alone-- that I feel I was put on the planet to do.

It's no surprise to me at all, given the current arrangement of American family life, where there is no village to help me raise my kids, that many women would choose not to have children.  Structurally, it's hard to imagine mothering and also pursuing any other thing fully, except perhaps in sequence (phase two of life = raising kids, phase three = becoming a monk, running for president, starting your own commune, what have you).

These "other loves" as Solnit writes about them, are not compatible with having children.  Her book is all about either/or: women who don't have children devote their loves elsewhere (which is awesome), while women who have children devote their love to their children.  So much for "having it all," right?  I certainly think of myself as devoting myself in many directions, but have been called on multiple occasions,  "selfish", implicitly or explicitly, for doing so.

The ways that married and parenting life curtails self-actualization are a constant source of angst for me.  And yes, perhaps some really brilliant women can self-actualize while mothering.  Every moment with my kids is heavy, full of life, vitality, and profound sense of immediacy and intention.  I also love that, even as I want to focus that way on other things too.  These bonds are both oppressive and fulfilling. Isn't this the paradox of relation?

Perhaps when we accept all the feelings, normalize all the feelings so mothers and non-mothers alike feel no shame or isolation in their myriad devotions, then maybe mothers can find the sacred in the daily grind of life with kids, and see their pursuit of fulfillment as tied to that of non-mothers.

There are so many people and places to devote one's self to, it needn't always be one's children. We can make kin in so many ways, as feminist writer Donna Haraway would have it. We should also be able to retract into our own selves, turn that love inward, and replenish our reserves on occasion, without thinking we're being selfish by doing so.

When we start to see that all of our pursuits are admirable, not selfish, we know we're getting close. Because it's so easy as a woman to internalize the message that our purpose is to please others-- this message is everywhere.  And I don't want my daughters to receive this message, not the least of all from the life I model for them as their mother and as a woman with many other loves. Any woman who can transcend that message deserves a medal, not the scarlet letter S.
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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Peace of Daily Things: Revising Wendell Berry for Ecofeminist Grief

I have often loved and taught Wendell Berry's poem, "The Peace of Wild Things," but struggle to really allow myself to take solace in it.

Given my recent dive into grief (see previous post, "The Vacuum"), I have continued to think about Berry's poem.

What bothers me about it is his use of nature as a crutch.  Someone I know and love often tells me that ultimately, the reason they can't dig religion is because of using God as a "crutch." But isn't Berry using nature as a crutch in this poem, in the same way? Manufacturing some idea of it, such that its sole purpose is to comfort a very human feeling of grief?  Honestly, I don't see the difference between God and Nature in so many claims.  Nature has taken over for God in a secular time, among my scientist and nature-loving friends and colleagues.

I'm not going to spend any more time right now on that issue, but would like to propose that Berry's poem doesn't work for someone like me, whose justice and feminist-oriented views of nature, much less grief, don't quite work the same way. I've been thinking about it a lot recently, and would like to offer this revision of Berry's poem, to suggest a feminist, perhaps overly domestic version that doesn't rely on an idea of nature as a thing "out there".

Rather, I hope this rings a Buddhist bell for you, regardless of the focus on motherhood, in terms of how grief has affected my sense of "the now" and my love of the things I've already spent so much effort cultivating.


____________________________

When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night at the least sound
In fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down next to them
Rest in the beauty of their breathing, while the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of daily things
That do not tax their lives with future and past
Or grief. I come into the presence of the texture of my daughter’s hair.
And I feel next to me the blinding purpose of warm skin
Content in our dark contact. For a time
I rest in the grace of Thou, and am not alone.

____________________________

If it helps to be reminded of Berry's poem:

____________________________

When despair for the world grows in me
 and I wake in the night at the least sound
 in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
 I go and lie down where the wood drake
 rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
 I come into the peace of wild things
 who do not tax their lives with forethought
 of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
 And I feel above me the day-blind stars
 waiting with their light. For a time
 I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

_________________________

I wanted to challenge Berry's notion of nature as liberating us from the human. I wanted to challenge his notion of nature as a solace from the pain of daily life. I wanted to challenge his notion of the detachedness of nature from the human, and the notion of nature as peaceful, "still" like water, or feeding beautifully, as a heron would.  These projections of nature are inconsistent with my grief, and they are certainly inconsistent with the solace I find in my own ideas of nature.

In grief, I have found that I find solace in the mundane, in the comforts of daily life, in the gratitude of knowing there is so much love connecting me to things around me, especially my kids and immediate family. I don't need nature for that, but nature does help me focus on those things, sometimes. And nature is IN those things, always. 

This exercise of rewriting in the mode of another author reminds me of an exercise I'll never forget from seventh grade-- it was called "Imitation."  We would be given pieces of literature and asked to fill in the blanks to create similar structures but with our own images and ideas. Rewriting Berry allowed me to take HIM out of the poem, and leverage this sentiment and power of his poem for my own purposes.  

I can't write a poem about grief right now, but I can meditate on his.  

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Vacuum

I'm trying to get my head around the fact that on April 11, 2018, my gorgeous, capable, creative, and pregnant step-niece, mother of three young children, hanged herself.

My head is cracking open at the mental exercise of trying to grasp this information. My rudimentary understanding of mental health-as-illness, as opposed to a matter of will power or choice, is barely a consolation. My brain hurts, my heart hurts, my throat hurts, my womb hurts.

Her suicide feels like an asteroid has ripped a hole in the atmosphere, leaving everybody who knew her gaping open in agony. It's like what happens in airplanes when their windows rip out and everything inside gets torn to shreds in the nothingness that roars through. With great sorrow, I imagine her children and husband like passengers in the airplane, ripped out the windows of the sweet, beautiful life she painstakingly created for them. All of a sudden, even oxygen feels like a luxury. The hole left behind is heavy, irrefutable, dark, and empty.

Despite a challenging childhood, thin on many forms of crucial support, she built a dream life for herself, of which I was frequently envious. She mindfully manifested the world we could only dream of for her. She was extraordinarily crafty, making aesthetic DIY projects out of free items on Craigslist, creating a labyrinth of raised garden beds producing vegetables, flowers, and blueberries, and making fairy houses through the woods with her kids.  She adopted animals and friends into her life, generously giving of her energy to lots of living things that needed nurturance.

I know all mothers love their children, but she made mothering a mission. She planted so many seeds in the world, despite having been deprived of essential nutrients in her own childhood. Did she keep filling up the world with love and beauty in order to fill a hole inside herself? How could all that love and creativity be only directed outward, and not toward filling her own emptiness?

She and I weren't very close. But she was one of the most important people to somebody with whom I am very close-- my stepmother. Their relationship had its ups and downs, to be sure, but nobody held a firmer place in my stepmother's heart than this young woman. My stepmother did her best to be a loving, stable force for her, and to perhaps fill her own holes through that relationship. They had many reasons to hold tightly to each other.
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I'm thinking a lot recently of Andrew Wyeth's hauntingly beautiful Maine images. As I look at "Her Room", I imagine my step-niece there. I gather she saw Maine as her escape from suffering. I imagine her in a room like this right now, at peace.
At the memorial service last week, at least 150 friends and family descended on my step-niece's idyllic northern California home. Her little children and her husband, having slept elsewhere for the previous week, came back to the garden she had spent the past several years building, came back to the critters and tiny-house dwellers on their property--friends from high school and from the ever-spiraling-out rhizome of a community my step-niece cultivated--and to the blueberries just ripening on the spring bushes.

In a poignant gesture of normalcy, the little girls squealed with delight at the sight of the first green, tiny blueberry of the season, which had come into being during their week of absence, during the week since their mother had been found. I can't decide if the marching on of nature is an insult or a comfort. How can they keep growing without her?

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Anybody who knows my step-niece knows that her love of blueberries started in Maine. These are blueberry fields in autumn, a view from Caterpillar Hill looking at the bridge to Little Deer Isle, where she spent a month each summer with my dad and stepmom. Despite her seemingly idyllic California life, she had bought a house in Stonington and was planning to move there soon.

Then I try to think of all the things she put into the world-- babies, blueberries, beauty-- and take some small comfort in knowing that although the vacuum is still tearing through the lives of those she left behind, so much of the love she created will come into being for years to come.



Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Do You Suffer from Eco-Despair? Seek Critical Thinking Treatment Right Away

Warning: the use of humor in the following post may upset you even more.  However, humor is key to surviving the apocalypse.  I know, you may worry that if you're laughing, people will think you're not taking shit seriously enough.  Laughter, after all, is a sign that you have enough privilege to not be weighed down by all. the. shit.  Take a page from some of the world's greatest satirists, though, and take this use of humor as an invitation to get meta.  Trust me, getting meta is subversive, radical, and utterly world-making.



Are you afraid of the end of the world?  Do you mourn the loss of coral reefs, polar bears, krill, oxygen, seasons, and other miracles of nature?  Is the permafrost under your house melting?  Have you given up the hopes of having children, because, hey, what's the point?  Are you thinking of taking the eco-mantra "leave no trace" to nihilistic levels of self-erasure?  Do you feel helpless in the face of a faceless enemy?  Are you feeling guilty because you, as an American, are the most likely to have created all these problems?  Do you feel impotent and powerless because practical solutions are, let's just admit it, never gonna happen?

If this sounds like you, you may be suffering from eco-despair.  Without proper treatment, eco-despair can quickly lapse into apocalypse fatigue.  Once apocalypse fatigue sets in, you're not likely to give a shit anymore.  Do something before it's too late.  



Nothing works better to build your immunity against eco-despair than Zoloft.  Just kidding.  Neoliberalism almost bought me out.  What I meant to say was that nothing works better to build your immunity against eco-despair than critical thinking.  

Try the following forms of critical thinking, and see how you feel upon a regular dose of using your noodle:

1.  Understanding the architecture of stories about climate change.  A cultural analysis of narratives shows that 80% of news and mainstream media frame the problem of climate change using apocalyptic tropes.  There's this whole field called "negative news bias". Look it up.  The media we consume wants us to feel awful.   Psychological research shows that doom-and-gloom narratives inspire emotions of guilt and fear in audiences-- emotions that have been shown to be passive.  So it's no wonder that, on a diet of such news, people disconnect or even deny climate change.  Psychology + media analysis proves that we need to get meta about our media.

2.  Understanding that the neoliberal structure of American history wants us to feel we are individuals, wonderful unique creatures, that are disconnected from history, each other, the oppressive structures of family, culture, and tradition, etc.  While there is so much to love about this impulse (I'm from California so I love pretending that nobody existed before me, and that I'm the most important person on earth), the myth of individualism also keeps us down.  Nothing awesome that we love ever happened by the efforts of any single person alone.  No historical triumph of progress over depravity ever occurred because of any one human.  If we're going to get out of the apocalypse, it'll be because we are part of a collective, what Paul Hawken calls the "blessed unrest."  Tune in to each other.  Cultivate collectivity and relation.  It's all that matters.  I'm serious!  Imagine the world does blow up.  Don't you want to be with your peeps?  And if it doesn't blow up, your peeps are the only thing that will get you through.  Cultivate community. DO IT. 

3.  I'll let you in on a crazy secret: there are cultures and traditions in the world that have suffered a lot, and they have mastered the fine art of facing crisis.  Look up "pleasure activism" and "misery resistance," for example.  Read Adrienne Maree Brown's book, Emergent Strategy.  It will change your whole worldview, if you're not already on board with her schtick.  Think you're the first generation to suffer and freak out about the state of the world?  Read the biographies of those who came before you.  Your elders.  They've seen it all.  You live in a world of general bliss, in the relative history of shitty societies.  If anybody knows how to face the apocalypse, it's our elders.  Look to them. 


4.  Tell better stories.  Stories make worlds.  Literally.  Don't just become a meta-reader of stories, deftly deflecting declension narratives in your sleep, or thousand-hand-slapping every jeremiad that comes your way, fiercely declaring "get back you devil!"  No, you're not just a consumer, deconstructer, analyst.  You also wield the super-powers of producing, creating, constructing.   What will you do with this miracle of storytelling, which is available to all?   Actively reject doom-and-gloom narratives in your own work, organizing, and telling of the story.  

Other frames are shown to be more effective at engaging people over the long-term.  Tons of research shows that the issue of human health makes your audience care a lot more about climate change than polar bears, much less krill.  God, I love krill. Don't get me started.  The way they provide the foundation of all ocean life.  The way they are the unsung hero of all charismatic ocean critters.  How they're the bellwether of ocean health, how Brad Pitt played a krill in Happy Feet.  Breathtaking performance, don't you think?  So. Freaking. Hot.

Where was I?

Oh, right, health.  So, studies show that framing climate change not as an issue that affects Brad Pitt, I mean, krill, but rather as an issue that affects our communities, families, and loved ones, is more effective at getting more people to acknowledge it as a problem, and to overcome the barrier that climate change feels distant, in both time and space.  How can we make climate change immediate, in both geography and temporality?  If temporal and geographical distance is one of the reasons people have a hard time caring about it, apocalypse won't work.  Know anybody experiencing the effects of climate change?  Exactly.  I thought so.  Forget Brad Pitt.  Think of your daughter, neighbor, classmate, yourself.  It isn't six degrees of Kevin Bacon.   Tell better stories about climate change that show the reality of how it's affecting YOU. 

5.  Never belittle the power of imagination.  Everywhere you go, ask this question (from Brown), "what would it take to thrive in a climate changed future?"  What does a smarter, healthy, thriving, just climate-changed future look like, exactly?  Imagine it.  Just take a few minutes and imagine it.  If you find you cannot imagine it, ask yourself if you are a coward and have accepted the neoliberal doctrine that you are acting alone (see above).  Or, ask yourself if you've bought the doctrine that you have no power.  Get meta. Make new narratives. See research on "nudge" and, for starters, finish this blog post.  Rebecca Solnit will teach you that the myth of powerlessness is a curse put on you by those in power to keep you consenting to being controlled.  Get over it, for the love of the Goddess!  That's just a cop-out, and yes I'm calling you out, in a gentle, loving, maternal way.  See all above posts, read Brown and Solnit, and even Jensen, here.  GET OVER IT and GET TO WORK.  

Turns out, the radical imagination is like gold to the movement, in this day and age when the imagination has been "privatized," as Solnit puts it, by capitalism.  Check out, as just one example, how others are cultivating the imagination. It's meta. It's so fucking meta.  




Side effects of this treatment of critical thinking may include:

1.  an increased love of krill
2.  a radical awareness that you're not alone against the world, something that might be termed “collective efficacy” 
2.  mindfulness of your many blessings, such as potable water, literacy, and the beloved who always listens to you cry about how the world is going to hell, like this:


3.  increased mindfulness of simple pleasures, such as petting a cute animal or laughing at terrible blog posts, without guilt

4.  increased desire to cultivate community, friendship, and relationships with loved ones

5.  radical empathy for others' suffering and conditions of their own efforts or lack thereof

6.  development of utter immunity to and/or transcendence of negativity. Or at least, getting more meta about it.  Ugly feelings? Yeah, it's a thing. Whatever.

7.  increased stamina to stay in the movement for the long haul, not just burn out into nihilistic state of apathy and despair.  Because you actively pursue research to inoculate yourself, you've already found this amazing movie, and this one too, oh, and this one.  Movies.  Why do they matter? They tell stories. CONSUME GOOD ONES.  META.

And a whole host of other boring things that don't really matter, but which have been substantiated by research: 


  • improved sleep quality
  • better relationships
  • increased nonviolent communication skills
  • fewer self-destructive behaviors
  • improved general well-being
  • acceptance of the paradox that the world is troubled, and we have to live fully in it
  • radical imagination for thriving in a climate-changed future.
Those are things that you should put on your resume, write home about, and, seriously, put on your Tinder profile.  Nothing's hotter than a krill-loving climate justice warrior who has the patience to sit in a chair and think through all these things before raging against the machine.  Also, that's what the planet needs. 



Monday, January 8, 2018

The Glaring Whiteness of Hope

Stop asking for hope.

This morning I listened to Krista Tippett interview Ta-Nahesi Coates for her podcast, On Being.  I normally do love this podcast as an uplifting alternative to my other favorite podcast with a strikingly similar, preposition-centric name, On Point.  Ironically, I listen to On Being to get out of the despair cycle that listening to news prompts for me.



Krista, I love you, but you white-centered the hell out of that interview, and could not resist asking Coates, who claimed over and over that he wasn't there to give white people directions, much less hope, for directions for white people, and hope for white people.  I was scratching my ears out.

In this historical moment, a lot of white people like me are freaking out, because of Trump, because of climate change, because of various and sundry forms of oppression that some of us are just waking up to, and we're looking to those who have been living in that oppression for "hope." I confess, I have been one of those white people.  But I have quickly learned that this demand is cruel, obnoxious, and ignorant.

Why do we keep asking oppressed peoples for signs of "hope"?  Because it assures us that the status quo isn't that bad, that the suffering isn't so awful as to be hopeless, and that we can just keep on keeping on.  If someone who has suffered so much can still feel hope, then we don't have to worry about our complicity in further suffering.

It's a dangerous argument to make, I know. I'm not saying that people who have suffered a lot shouldn't feel hope, or that their hope further justifies their oppressor.  I am not suggesting this at all. But I would like people like myself, and perhaps Krista Tippett, to look inside our white selves a bit more to figure out what others' hope is really doing for us.  Why do we feel we need evidence of it so badly?  Hope is not inherently a bad or a white thing.  I have lots of time for hope in other contexts.  I'm just focusing here on this particular thing that I've observed since Trump's ascendance, when a lot of people like me had the wool removed from their eyes, and all of a sudden really, really, really needed a hit of hope.

At the end of the interview, Krista shared some questions from the audience.  One question was from a set of school teachers who wanted to know something like "How can we maintain hope with our students when we're all suffering so much?"  It's a question that seems to get asked more and more of all kinds of speakers, teachers, pundits, politicians, activists...  No matter what the content of the presentation, no matter the expertise of the speaker, "wherefore hope?" seems the audience's main concern.

It's what I'm asked, too, and if you've read any of this blog, you know that the question of "hope" is of great interest to me.  But I'm profoundly ambivalent about it.  "On the one hand, on the other," is usually how I answer this question when I speak about the role of "hope" in teaching college students about the future of environmental justice.  

Two reasons I am particularly balking at hope after listening to Krista talk with Ta-Nahesi:

1. Why should the people who've been most oppressed also be burdened with the work of giving white people hope?  Coates responded to that question with this: "I reject the premise of the question." Right on. Amen. Fuck that question.

This new desire for "hope" smacks of the privilege of never having to find it before, the privilege of breathing, eating, and sleeping hope all your life, like I have.

Also, if audiences can't find hope in the content that the presenter is offering, the expertise of the presenter, the thoughts the presenter shares and the model they offer, then woe on them.  The presenter is showing hope by what they do, what they're saying, the work they do.  If we can't put two and two together, if we can't develop our own capacity for figuring out where to find hope, if we're looking to other people to tell us where to find it, we're ill-equipped to be hopeful. We're doomed to our own passiveness, our own lack of imagination, our own consumer-mentality that we can just order it online and just, poof!, have hope.

Hope isn't in a mantra or a beautiful turn of phrase.  It isn't in a person or set of people. Hope is a hard practice.  It's not even the end-game.

2.  Which brings me to the second irksome thing about the way hope was discussed in that podcast-- as if hope were the holy grail of inspiration from Coates or anybody else for that matter.   Coates has so much brilliance to offer-- about beauty, about sadness, about the craft of writing, about negotiating white-centering interviewers and audiences-- but Krista couldn't help but end on hope and how white audiences have received Coates.  Hope isn't the end game, Coates insisted on multiple occasions.

That it kept becoming the end-game was exemplary of the white-centering interviewer techniques that Coates discussed earlier in the podcast, when he said it wasn't his job to help white people "catch up" to his content.  Sadly, the audiences of this podcast missed a lot of his content because the interviewer centered hope in a particularly white way.  Which isn't to say that hope is white; I'm just saying that there is a newfound market in hope coming from white people looking to people who've suffered for their solace.

White people who have enjoyed hopeful lives for the most part (like me) need to learn better how to dwell in negative emotions, rather than seek relief so quickly and superficially.  Coates called it the "haunting" feelings that he wants to evoke in his craft.  Take this beautiful moment when he showed, not just told, Krista that he wasn't going to let her extract hope from him: she asked Coates about joy, and he refused her desire for saccharin, and answered by describing how to evoke sadness in the written word.  I wondered if she would push him on joy--"but you didn't answer my question"--but she let his answer be, to her credit, since, after all, it was his answer to her question about joy.  I think she took his point.

Coates' answer to the teachers' question about hope was that he was never expecting his own teachers to give him hope.  He wanted "enlightenment", "understanding," and "exposure" to help him understand what he was observing and experiencing in his own life.  He described acquiring these tools as "freedom"; surely, freedom is the end-game, not hope.  Hope is a kind of trap, as many people much smarter than I am have described, and which I write about elsewhere.

Since when do we demand hope from our teachers, our mentors, our parents, from anybody for that matter?

What does it say about our own privilege when we myopically focus on "hope" everywhere we go, with everyone we speak to?

What do we miss when our fetish for hope blocks out all the other rich, beautiful, sad, poignant, complex reality in front of us? That's where the real lessons are.  Is our desire for hope blinding us from the work, from the feelings, from the relations, that will actually get us through this time?

I want to dwell in some negative affects, but just not those offered by listening to idiots in the news, so I'm going to keep listening to On Being, despite these critiques, which of course I'm bigging up to make my point.

To end on an up-note, for my dear reader's sake, I'll say I'm grateful for the new insights this particular show gave me about the gagging reflex I've been getting when I'm asked about hope.


Friday, January 5, 2018

"The Beautiful Environmentalist: On the Real Food Movement and the Disciplined Body," by Madi Whaley

The following essay is a guest post by a brilliant student of mine, who I keep pestering to publish.  She agreed to let me post this essay as a start.  Enjoy!



The rhetoric of the “real food movement,” or “alternative food movement,” as termed by Julie Guthman, touts consumer food choices as beautiful, meaningful acts of food systems change, linking environmental ethics and healthy eating (Guthman, 2011).  Through this rhetoric, the mainstream real food movement creates a feminine-bodied archetypical beautiful environmentalist defined by lifestyle and image: environmentally conscious, healthy, and conventionally attractive. This archetype ultimately reinforces the white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy, as termed by bell hooks (hooks, 1981). This research contextualizes the archetype within a larger socio-political framework of environmentalism and analyzes the dominant narrative of the real food movement. In turn, it explores the archetype’s dangerous ramifications for the individual’s perceptions of, and actions toward, their bodies, as well as ramifications for cultural perceptions of people whose bodies are not included in this archetype. Furthermore, I offer my subjective experience with this phenomenon to actualize the potential danger in this narrative. Michel Foucault’s concepts of biopower and governmentality, and the adapted concept of ecogovernmentality, serve as a framework to explain the relationship between the discursive tactics of the real food movement and the creation of self-disciplined environmental subjects (Foucault, 1978). Finally, I will discuss strategies for resistance to the patriarchal body ideals espoused by the beautiful environmentalist archetype, ultimately advocating for transformative food systems change with roots in community rather than in consumerism.
To understand how the real food movement creates this beautiful environmentalist archetype, we must first understand the dominant narratives, rhetoric, and cultural images produced by the real food movement. The real food movement is characterized by a focus on eating locally produced organic “wholefoods,” or unprocessed foods. The real food movement emphasizes the individual consumer’s choice, all the while directing individuals toward a specific realm of purchasing food that fits the healthy, organic, wholefoods criteria. Various aspects of culture shape the narrative of the real food movement. Michael Pollan has been instrumental in shaping this narrative and the beautiful environmentalist archetype. His well-read book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, contains language emblematic of the real food movement:
‘Eating is an agricultural act,' as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world - and what is to become of it. To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction. By comparison, the pleasures of eating industrially, which is to say eating in ignorance, are fleeting. Many people today seem perfectly content eating at the end of an industrial food chain, without a thought in the world; this book is probably not for them. (2006)
Here, Pollan suggests that the individual’s consumption choice is more than a personal matter: it is a vehicle for radical social change. The body becomes a political agent. Those who “choose” to eat local, organic, wholefoods “eat with a fuller consciousness.” They are the enlightened, ethical environmentalists, and we should all aspire to be so good.  This contrasts with those who “choose” to eat food produced industrially, who are “eating in ignorance.” These people, Pollan implicates, are the unprincipled, the ignorant. Certainly, such traits are not ones well-respected in society.
            Pollan’s insistence on consumer behavior as an indicator of consciousness and enlightenment reinforces two related aspects of the dominant narrative. One of these is the fallacy of consumer activism: the idea that individual consumption habits are responsible for whether or not we transform industrial agriculture. The other is the moral high ground established for those who purchase real food. In her book Weighing In, Julie Guthman criticizes elitism in the real food movement. For example, she writes:
By exalting a set of food choices, the alternative-food movement tends to give rise to a missionary impulse, so those who are attracted to this food and movement want to spread the gospel. Seeing their food choices as signs of heightened ethicality, they see social change as making people become like them. This gives far too much power to those who happen to be privileged (and thin) to define the parameters of food system change. (2011).
Indeed, as Guthman explains throughout the book, people of color and lower-income are far less likely to have access to organic produce, to have the time to prepare their meals from scratch. Furthermore, as Sarah Wald explains in Visible Farmers, Invisible Workers, this perpetuates a neoliberal cycle of food production, wherein those consuming the food are made to feel morally righteous, healthy, and beautiful in their consumption meanwhile those producing “real” food (at least as far as large-scale organic food production is concerned) face low wages, unsavory working conditions, and are largely denied access to the food. Together, these pieces of the dominant narrative contribute to a culture of guilt and shame around food purchasing for those who may not have the access, the finances, or the “self-discipline” to purchase real foods, and inhibit our ability to put the power of food production in the hands of workers and communities.


At the same time, the real food movement packages this sense of morality with patriarchal beauty ideals, which are enhanced by social media and food blogging sites. For example, a popular plant-based food blog, “Oh She Glows,” features recipes to help you “glow from the inside out.” Radiance, vibrancy, light: these are components of the real food movement’s lifestyle. They work in tandem with the ethical notions of purity, wholesomeness, and the natural. In her book, The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wulf explains that light has a strong historical association with divinity, radiance, and beauty. Conceptions of divinity, or purity, and radiance, or beauty, reinforce one another. Here, I argue that the beauty myth is getting packaged in a new form: going “green,” consuming “real” food makes one beautiful both in mind and body.
I argue that, albeit unwittingly, these discursive tactics reinforce the white supremacist patriarchy. Since, as scholars such as Guthman, Wald, and Van Jones note, “real” food is less accessible to people of color and low-income, one must ask whether this archetype allows for people of color and low-income to be considered beautiful. The archetype is certainly white-bodied, even though most “alternative food” is grown by migrant farmworkers. Furthermore, the real food movement’s conflation of authenticity, naturalness, purity, and beauty perpetuates patriarchy in a broad sense, through creating a new standard of female beauty and reinforcing the problematic conflation of femininity and naturalness. It perpetuates the cultural treatment of fat people as “ecological others,” as Sarah Ray would say. For environmentalists of varying positionalities, purchasing only “real” food may seem obligatory, especially with threats of climate change looming. The real food movement’s promise of agency and beauty add to this pressure. This is a cognitive and emotional pressure for those who experience it, but it manifests physically. We literally embody the narrative of the real food movement; the very compositions of our bodies are altered based on the “real” food we feel compelled to consume.
As such, real food movement discourse can be seen as an eerily literal form of biopower, a concept explored by French philosopher Michel Foucault. Biopower is characterized by “numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations,” largely through discursive tactics that lead to self-discipline in the interest of the State (Foucault, 1976). Political ecologists and environmental humanities scholars have adapted Foucauldian concepts of biopower and governmentality to explain the ways in which the State and its auxiliaries exercise social control and control over the body to create “good ecological subjects.” Rather than offer structural or collective solutions such as small-scale worker-owned cooperative farms, the onus is placed on the individual consumer, who is expected to behave with moral discipline. In Discipline & Punishment, Foucault explains that such discipline creates “docile bodies,” easily transformed, yielding themselves to such mechanisms of power. Via the rhetoric of the real food movement, we are told that the good ecological subjects – those that are morally pure – improve their bodies, as they consume only the purest of foods: local, organic, wholefoods. Selectively disseminating knowledge, providing a set of principles by which the beautiful environmentalist archetype would eat, the real food movement creates an illusion of truth, autonomy, and freedom of choice for environmentalists with access to “real” food (Agarwal, 2005).
For example, ecogovernmentality is rampant at mainstream environmentalists’ grocer of choice, Whole Foods Market, which upholds the real food movement’s mantra of the conscious and beautiful consumer choice. The Whole Foods website hosts a page titled, “Healthy Eating: How to Eat Healthy Your Way.” This is followed with guides titled: “How to Eat Healthy on a Budget,” “What to Eat,” “How-to’s,” “Cooking and Shopping Tips,” “Family and Special Diets.” Whole Foods, ever so gracious, provides us with the necessary guides to healthy eating. They’re the experts, and they’re here to help us. We can take the information they provide and fine-tune it to meet our needs. Whole Foods’ rhetorical contribution to the real food movement perpetuates the beautiful environmentalist archetype, and provides consumers with the food they need to reach this ideal. Indeed, Whole Foods’ profits are hinged upon consumer anxieties and desires to feel healthy, beautiful, and morally righteous. Meanwhile, our individual consumption choices, and the increased pressure we feel regarding food choices do not result in the transformative food systems change that we need.
The Foucauldian framework also allows me to understand my own internalization of the real food movement narratives in a socio-political context. My experience also serves to illustrate the great potential for harm from this narrative. Having struggled with an eating disorder in high school, I sought recovery by ensuring that the food I ate was as “real” as possible, believing that it would improve my relationship with food, as an avenue for activism.
When grocery shopping or preparing meals, thoughts fired off so quickly in my mind that I sometimes thought it would overheat. Overwhelmed with the inescapable reality that almost every product I looked at somehow contributed to ecological, social, and personal health problems, my mind would fall into a swirl of panic over the choices at hand. Sometimes I would leave without food altogether, deciding that it was better to go hungry altogether than to make the wrong decision. And despite my great hunger and anxiety, this seemed perfectly justified based on the narrative I had been fed. To disappear, to become smaller, was to be beautiful. For I had consumed less resources, I had disciplined myself, given myself to some bigger issues. This was my reality: I wanted to save the world, and I wanted to be beautiful. I wanted to be that good, wholesome, beautiful environmentalist whose image was burned into my head by the rhetoric of the real food movement.
            But how do I make this real for you, my reader? This struggle seems so silly, so trivial, I’m sure. It may be incomprehensible, may seem preposterous that someone could internalize the rhetoric of the real food movement to such an extreme degree. And perhaps it seems quite a privileged kind of worry. Indeed, perhaps it is a luxury to fret over which produce I should buy rather than whether or not I can buy food at all. But the anxiety is real and it is horrible, I swear to you. It has consumed my mind and physically altered my body.
 In fact, various studies document the historical congruence between asceticism, with its goals of purity and freedom, and anorectic behavior, as well as the tendency among people with eating disorders to turn toward veganism or vegetarianism as a way to feel strong and righteous, while continuing rigid eating habits (Herzog, 2011) (Crisp, et al. 1986). For example, anthrozoologist Hal Herzog recalls a conversation with a young girl recovering from an eating disorder, who was attracted to veganism because of its “righteousness.” The phenomena they describe are consistent with my own experience regarding consuming “real” foods.  “Ecogovernmentality,” “self-discipline,” “rigidity,” and “orthorexia,” – these are the terms that describe the times when I go to the grocery store and feel my body start to shake, to feel a lump swell up in my throat, rendered unable to act. They describe my compulsion toward growing smaller, toward being pure and wholesome.
I do not mean to suggest that the rhetoric of the real food movement is wholly responsible for an epidemic of eating disorders. A variety of other cultural narratives, social situations, and interpersonal relationships influence our relationships with our perceptions of our own morality, our bodies, and our health. However, my experience exemplifies the severe reactions that a multitude of people can have to disempowering narratives.
To be clear: I firmly believe that we need to radically change our food systems. I want all people have access to healthy food. I want us to produce food in ecologically resilient manners. I want us as communities, as democratic social bodies, to have control over that production, to decide what we eat. I do not, however, believe that we can reach such change using the patriarchal and capitalist consumption-based narrative of the mainstream real food movement, where corporate control still reigns and farmworkers are still exploited, where farming practices are still unsound, and where women are shamed. We must focus our energy toward transformative food systems change, building networks of sustainable, community-centered food production. The beautiful environmentalist archetype has no purpose here. Indeed, as philosopher Slavoj Zizek explains, we cannot even create an ecologically sound world if our movement is focused on valuing that which is “natural” and “beautiful,” as if the two are mutually constitutive.
Many people can – and are – resisting this problematic rhetoric and constructing a more radically transformative food movement. Grassroots food systems change work is popping up all over the country, and the world. In fact, our abilities to mobilize on this front may be greater than ever before.
I believe that dismantling the oppressive structures in our own minds is a form of resistance. We must unlearn the problematic narratives we are subjected to, and create new stories for ourselves as individuals and as a society: stories that allow for us to be undisciplined, messy, dirty, impure; but full, happy, and healthy by our own standards. In my larger project, I discuss psychologist Michael White’s “deconstruction as therapy” to provide a framework for this change in thought. Perhaps we can see body positivity movements in ecological terms. We need to create our own narratives and our own cultures that are respectful of individual minds, bodies, and differences, as well as communities’ agency to produce their own sustenance.
Ultimately, the “real food” movement’s rhetoric certainly creates an archetypical beautiful environmentalist. The dominant narrative of the real food movement reinforces systems of power and privilege in society by tying morality to privileged consumption choices. It denies the transformative change required for our food systems, and by virtue of access and representation, excludes many people from the scope of beauty and environmentalism. Furthermore, it upholds patriarchal beauty ideals that are harmful to women at-large. Transformative food systems change truly addresses the issues that real food movement rhetoric caters to, without any need for shame regarding food consumption, without the need for white supremacist patriarchal beauty ideals.
The fate of the world is not resting in your stomach, and beauty is not predicated on likeness to the image, or essence, of the beautiful environmentalist. I have learned that you can eat the cookies if you want them, break bread with your community, and use the energy from all that good food to build community-oriented, ecologically resilient food systems.

Works Cited
Catalina Zamora, M.L., et al. “Orthorexia nervosa. A new eating behavior disorder?” Actas Esp Psiquiatr, vol. 33, no. 1, 2005, pp. 66-68.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Vol. 1. Éditions Gallimard, 1976.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Vol. 3. Éditions Gallimard, 1988.
Guthman, Julie. Weighing In. University of California Press, 2011.
“Healthy Eating: How to Eat Healthy Your Way.” Whole Foods Market, 2016, www.wholefoodsmarket.com/healthy-eating
McNay, Lois. “The Foucauldian Body and the Exclusion of Experience.” Hypatia, vol. 6, no. 3, 1991, pp. 125-139.
Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Penguin Press, 2006.
Ray, Sarah Jaquette. “How Many Mothers Does it Take to Change all the Light Bulbs?” Journal of the Motherhood Initiative, vol. 2, no. 1, 2011, pp. 81-101.
Statenstein, Liana. “Why You Might Want to Head to Eastern Europe for Your Next Cleanse.” Vogue, 2016.
Van Dooren, Thom. “Care: Living Lexicon for the Environmental Humanities.” Environmental Humanities, vol. 5, 2014, pp. 291-294.
White, Michael. “Deconstruction and Therapy.” Dulwich Centre Newsletter. No. 3, 1991.
Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth. Harper Perennial, 2002.

Wright, Laura. The Vegan Studies Project: Food, Animals, and Gender in the Age of Terror. University of Georgia Press, 2015.